What Is the Orange Fungus Growing in My Mulch?
Organic Mulch, What is It and What is It Hiding?
Organic mulch is an attractive, biodegradable way to dress up beds around flowers, shrubbery, and trees. It usually is composed of pine needles (pine straw), shredded wood, and chipped or shredded bark.
An organically mulched landscape saves homeowners time and money, as well as being pleasing to the eye. Mulch will cut down on water loss due to evaporation, subsequently lowering your water bill. Mulch also reduces weed growth by shading the ground. This reduces the amount of money you spend on herbicides, as well as reducing the time you have to spend yanking weeds out of your flower beds.
Uninvited guests in organic mulch
But sometimes organic mulch comes with unwanted guests - spores. Spores which grow into a blob of slimy goo. Looking at this grotesque slimy blob may make you wonder out loud, "What IS the orange fungus growing in my mulch?"
What is the Orange Fungus?
This sometimes orange, sometimes yellow, substance is commonly called "dog vomit fungus." In the past it was considered by scientists to be a member of the fungus family, but it has since been renamed "slime mold."
But it's not a really a mold either. In fact, since scientists aren't really sure WHAT it is, it is now classified as a protist. Microbe World defines a protist as "... eukaryotic creatures <you-carry-ah-tick>, meaning their DNA is enclosed in a nucleus inside the cell..... They’re not plants, animals or fungi, but they act enough like them that scientists believe protists paved the way for the evolution of early plants, animals, and fungi."
According to Chris Reid of the University of Sydney the term protist is used as a group for "everything we don't really understand."
Why don't scientists understand it? It is because slime mold thinks..... and moves! And it does it without a brain.
Slime Mold Basics
The orange fungus growing in your mulch is a species of slime mold known scientifically as physarum polycephalum. These slime molds are single cell organisms which feed on the bacteria produced by decomposing plant material, aiding the natural decomposition process.
Slime molds appear when the air is warm and wet. (Does anything reproduce when it's cold and dry?) They reproduce by generating millions of spores which are then dispersed either through the air or by contact dispersal. When the mold eventually dies out, it turns into a powdery white spot.
You may encounter slime molds growing in your mulch, or growing in slimy clumps on rotting tree stumps. Some people supposedly scrape the blobs up and scramble them, much like we scramble eggs.
Slime Molds: Individuals or Collectives?
Scientists who study slime molds are amazed at the contradictions to "normal" scientifically understood behaviors. Slime molds are single celled organisms without brains which at times come together to "move" and "think" as one collective unit.
When food is plentiful, the slime mold cell will act as an individual, even when it is surrounded by fellow slimy cells. The cells move amoeba-like, oozing and shifting their shapes to suit their environment.
But when food is scarce, the individual cells will form a collective unit, thinking and acting as one unified organism.
When the need to look for food arises, slime mold cells will come together to form either a collective blob less than 1/4 inch long, or it will form long tendrils up to several yards long.
Cellular Slime Molds
The minority of slime molds are cellular; when the single cells merge, they combine into one larger, many celled blob. These are the smaller slime mold collectives which live in the soil until it is time to find a new food source.
When the time comes to move, the individual slime mold cells produce "signal" molecules which are detected by other slime cells. The single cells quickly move together and form a large mass of cells which then creeps to the surface of the soil. Then, if the blob is lucky, it will be stepped on and transported to a new area. If it is not transported, the blob will grow stalks and will start emitting spores.
Acellular Slime Molds
The majority of slime molds are acellular. When these particular cells come together, they actually merge into one giant single cell with millions of nuclei and a single cell membrane.
The giant, ameboid mass is filled with proteins which act as "muscles" and cause the slime mold protoplasm to flow back and forth, creating movement. The slime mold's movement has been clocked at a whopping 1/25 of an inch per hour.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Physarum polycephalum has been studied by scientists for many years. Researchers once chopped the large blob into pieces, and were astonished when the tiny pieces crept back together.
The SpongeBob slime mold (yes, really!) showed it was capable of "memory." Researchers put the slime mold at one end of a maze and food at the other.
The blob crept along, sending offshoot tendrils through every corridor of the maze. When the food was reached, the SpongeBob mold withdrew all the tentacles, leaving a slime behind in the dead-end corridors of the maze. When the experiment was repeated, the slime mold avoided the dead-ends, and headed straight for the food.
Klaus-Peter Zauner at the University of Southampton, UK, has used slime mold to remotely control a six legged robot. The slime was grown in a six armed star pattern on top of a circuit which controlled the robot. When the slime was exposed to bright light over one area of the circuit, the mold slithered away, triggering the circuit and causing corresponding movement one of the robot's legs.
Researchers believe slime molds may be of use in the future due to the miniaturization of electronics and technology.
Roll On Down The Highway
Researchers in Tokyo put food wafers onto a glass in the same pattern as Japan's major cities would appear. The scientists simulated natural obstructions such as mountains and rivers by shining light onto the glass.
The slime molds, averse to the lights, were able to recreate the major interstate patterns of Japan, something it had taken engineers decades to do.
He's Not Heavy, He's My Brother
Slime molds are capable of choosing the right balance of nutrition they require from two separate food sources. Two sources of food, one protein rich and the other carbohydrate rich, were placed in two separate areas on a piece of glass. The slime mold spread out and consumed the exact ratio of each nutrient that it required. That's great self-control!
What is your opinion of slime molds?
The Orange Fungus in Your Mulch is Harmless
So the orange fungus in your mulch is really quite fascinating. Even though its kind is a billion years old and it feeds by enveloping its food in slime, it is just a harmless blob of protoplasm.
If you don't mind a little pulsating slime in your flower beds, just leave it be. It is part of the natural process of decomposition, and it will not harm you or your pets. It will eventually dry up and leave just a little powdery spot as proof it ever lived.
If you really can't stand the sight of it, it can be washed away with a garden hose, or sprayed with a vinegar-water mix.
But really, how in the world will you ever explain to your kids that you killed Sponge Bob?